VILNIUS, LITHUANIA — As I ascend the staircase to the reasonably bright and shiny new third floor administrative offices of the Baltic Film Group (BFG), two eager staffers come crashing down, brushing me aside, wrestling with the weight of an armful of 17th century rifles.
|It has been bumpy ride for one beginning his career as a Soviet Indie film distributor.|
Had there been another partisan uprising? I think to myself, recalling my own interviews with surviving Lithuanian resistance fighters known as the Forest Brothers several years ago, who heroically defended their country's sovereignty from the encroaching Soviet army as the Nazis retreated near the end of WWII. But these guns seemed awfully old.
Moments later, I'm sitting in the spacious office of BFG chief executive officer Robertas Urbonas, who by his soft-spoken demeanor assures me the rifles are for a period piece reenactment of a battle between Sweden and Denmark. From this point on, Urbonas reveals himself freely and intimately, concerning myriad events of his life as a prominent international film producer, who has opened the doors wide for international scriptwriters.
What drives me to seek out Urbonas is his art house feature film, last year's Forest Of The Gods; a box office hit in Lithuania that knocked Harry Potter himself into second place in the nation's cinemas. I lived part-time in Lithuania three years ago researching a script that would juxtapose the conflicts of Lithuania's tumultuous times under the Nazi, and then Soviet, occupation.
Three years later, I had yet to turn up my own version, and acquiescence to the creative genius of Ricardas Gavelis' adaptation of the memoirs of Balys Sruoga, a Lithuanian writer and doctor of philosophy who was incarcerated for sedition in the Nazi death camp Stuthof after 1941 Nazi occupation of the Baltics, Dievu Miskas.
Soviet censorship rejected Gavelis' script in 1981. Years later, film director Algimantas Puipa took an interest in it, and approached Urbonas, who had already produced the four Academy Award winners including Devil's Arithmetic, Out Of The Ashes and P.O.W., all addressing the issue of WWII's European atrocities. Puipa's unique style would captivate Lithuanians. Urbonas was sold on the idea and quickly went to work raising the dough, which came in part from the U.K., and organizing a dynamic cast and production crew.
The collaboration of the artistic talents of central actors Valentinas Masalskis, Steven Berkoff, Liubomiras Laucevicius, director Algimantas Puipa, cinematographer Algimantas Mikutenas, production designer Balius Klicius, costume designer Daiva Petrulyte, U.K. film editor John Grover, and a cast of extraordinary talent, Urbonas has produced a timeless masterpiece.
It is through the popularity of the Forest Of The Gods, adroitly portrayed through the central character, the Professor, Sruoga's alter ego, that makes the script an indisputable humanitarian message to the modern world that such inhumane atrocities cannot break the natural spirit of humanity.
"I've made four holocaust films," Urbonas remarks. What's more, while he served in the Soviet army during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, "I lost many friends there." Urbonas' grief is palpable. It's in his eyes. I imagine if Urbonas were ever to make a sequel it would be titled, Forest Of The Crosses, to emphasize the senseless inhumanity of politics quashing culture.
Urbonas was born in Lithuania's Baltic seaport of Klaipeda. As a youthful wanderlust, Soviet army veteran, ship deck worker, and eventually a professor of music, Urbonas filled every spare hour watching movies — then state-controlled Soviet functional realism - absorbing the potential of film into his imaginative psyche.
His father, Justas — a survivor of 15 years submerged in the treacherous coal mines of a Siberian gulag — tacitly gave Urbonas a lodestone of guidance culled during the roller coaster-ride of sociopolitical upheavals during his own young life. After his release from the gulag, Justas worked in construction, Urbonas proudly recounts, building a cinema, before his untimely death from brain cancer.
Urbonas started his film career during the Soviet era, as an independent distributor of films from Moscow to Lithuanian theaters, (direct financing was available only for newsreel Soviet Lithuania, documentaries for local viewing, specially commissioned pictures were also financed from the local budget, following approval from the Kremlin) which eventually lead to his role as producer in 1989 to 1992 of the Animation Studio.
"Mikhail Gorbachev really opened up independent filmmaking," Urbonas says, referring to the Soviet leader's economic reconstruction, Perestroika. Given the opportunity, Urbonas started his own production studio competing with the government owned Lithuanian Film Studio (LFS), allowing him to break away from the ideological constraints of Soviet censorship. In 1992, Urbonas, recognized for his professional skills, was asked to take the helm of the LFS, (700 employees) at the age of 32, and he began the daunting task of expanding the entertainment business in Eastern Europe.
Urbonas had to feel his way through new political landscapes of iconography and history of his times: the Soviet-controlled financing and newsreel censorship that kept his creativity in check; the tempestuous 90s of post-Soviet regime gangster capitalism in a newly liberated country where banks and get-rich-quick investment stock companies opened and closed like a shutter.
Yet, the fall of the Iron Curtain brought western filmmakers, such a Paul Lichtman (The New Adventures Of Robin Hood), who befriended Urbonas, teaching him how to produce a film efficiently in four weeks (instead of the Soviet nine-month shooting schedule); developing international distribution and foreign partnerships; and mentoring him as an innovative filmmaking scriptwriter in a quickly regenerating Lithuanian film industry.
Urbonas speaks modestly of the calculating high-stakes risks as a film producer in Eastern Europe (at one time banks tacked on a 150 percent interest rate on his loans), having compiled a filmography of 31 films and over 80 animations and documentaries, which qualifies him as a full-spectrum cinematic producer on the international stage.
Though the financial support from the Lithuanian government is statistically the lowest in Europe, (a feature film costs about $1 million euros), and underwritten by the Ministry of Culture and the Culture of Sports Fund which limits the number of films produced per year, Urbonas, has tactfully cultivated co-operation from western European investors giving him the resources to make profitable films in line with his artistic standards.
In homage to his father, Urbonas has carried forth his unwavering conviction that cinema is a vital piece of Lithuania's economic fabric; and the preservation of its heritage, culture and disposition will bridge the gap to international recognition. It is long overdue, and the credit, in large part, goes to this unobtrusive man sitting before me.
Everyone benefits, Urbonas stresses, including, and particularly, western screenplay writers. Send your completed scripts to http://www.bfg.lt.
J.R. Kambak is a regular IN correspondent and award-nomnated screen-playwright, award-winning videographer, and former corporate communications/media relations executive. E-mail: email@example.com